A change for the better: the value of teaching social and environmental issues

Words: Peter Taylor-Whiffen

The landscape

Making a positive impact – whether on society or the environment – is no longer an optional extra. Over the past decade, consumers and citizens have begun to actively reject organisations and leaders who don’t have such values at the heart of their thinking. “Years ago, you’d be able to get a good student debate going around what role business had in concern for society,” says Professor Michelle Rogan, Director of MSc Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Management. “That’s impossible now – it’s no longer about whether we should address social issues, it’s about which ones we should be working on.” The challenge for educators is therefore to give their students – the innovators and business leaders of the future – the tools and skills to put their values into practice and, in the process, change the world for the better.

The challenge

Rogan’s MSc students have been set a challenge: specifically, to make fast fashion circular and waste-free. “We wanted a few golden threads to run through everything they learn, that connect what they’re learning to their own personal innovation development,” says Rogan. “We already had wonderful core course content on understanding innovation strategy, technology and business models, thinking about how they’re going to create value in the world. “But then we developed a module called ‘personal innovation development’, not as an add-on but to run through and underpin the whole course. In three terms, students work on understanding what their strengths are as a leader of innovation, how they connect to others and what social capital they need to be an effective innovator. Then they focus on how to bring that to the wider world.”

The collaboration

“Teaching social and environmental issues isn’t about teaching students what to think. It’s giving them the tools and skills to think for themselves,” says Rogan, “and a huge part of that is encouraging them to embrace different perspectives.” The fast-fashion challenge was set in conjunction with Open IDEO, an open innovation collaboration that brings together people in design thinking from all over the world to solve global problems. “One of our initial student discussions was about how they felt using vintage second-hand clothes,” says Rogan. “Some immediately reacted negatively, others had a very different reaction. It’s one thing to sit in London and talk in the abstract about pollution created through the production process of, say, dyeing fabrics, but if you have someone in the classroom who’s actually grown up in one of the countries where there’s labour exploitation or pollution caused by fashion, it makes the problem real. It’s important to maximise that advantage – to make the most of your diverse cohort so everyone can learn from each other.”

The commitment

While individual modules can teach skills in innovative, environmentally impactful entrepreneurship, that learning will be most effective where the institution’s ethos is based in the same values – as it is at Imperial. “Imperial’s fundamental pillars include working toward a sustainable society, and that’s reflected everywhere you look. The excitement around environmental and social innovation is within our MSc but it’s also in Imperial’s design school, engineering school, business school, and our alumni community, who are doing fantastic work. Effective education around sustainability and positive social impact needs to be based on a community all working together in the same direction naturally, and that happens everywhere you look at Imperial,” says Rogan.

The future

“Innovation in corporate social entrepreneurship is becoming more central to leadership in business, government and NGOs,” says Rogan. “You want to give students not just the education for now, but the skills to pick up those golden threads and take them forward, to help them lead innovation in an organisation or their own startup. That’s how they will be able to change the world.”

Professor Michelle Rogan is Director of MSc Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Management at Imperial College Business School.